It took place within the University of Kentucky Student Center Grand Ballroom, then one of the more active concert havens in town. John Prine and David Bromberg played there that same school year.
But the star of that February evening in 1977 was Emmylou Harris. At the time, she was amassing a commercial audience to match the devout fanbase that had been following her since introductions were made via Gram Parsons’ groundbreaking GP and Grievous Angels albums some four years earlier.
In many instances, Harris was already a star. The UK concert had sold out weeks earlier while songs from the singer’s then-current album, Luxury Liner – especially a swing-savvy version of the Chuck Berry nugget (You Never Can Tell) C’est La Vie and the Parsons-penned title tune – were getting more airplay from Lexington rock stations than country radio.
We recalled the great players that made up Harris’ famed Hot Band at the ’77 performance. There was the great steel guitarist Hank DeVito, who underscored Harris’ gorgeously plaintive singing on Making Believe. The show was also one of the last regional outings to feature Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band. He would leave to start a solo career a few months later with Kentucky-born Ricky Skaggs taking his place. Nearly stealing the show was famed British-born fingerpicker Albert Lee, one of the sleekest roots-conscious guitarists on the planet.
And then there was Harris, the heir apparent to the so-called “cosmic country” sound pioneered by Parsons. But she was clearly gravitating toward more traditional inspirations, too. Luxury Liner, in fact, was a testament to Harris’ Americana reach, taking on songs by A.P. Carter, Townes Van Zandt and The Louvin Brothers as well as by Berry, Crowell and Parsons.
With a folk-ish country soprano, a keen performance intuition and the country spirit of a true honky tonk angel – albeit it, one schooled well outside of the Nashville city limits – Harris forged a sound and repertoire that redefined country for a college audience that was far more enamored of the then-fertile singer-songwriter climate than anything resembling the Nashville norm.
“Sometimes you feel like it’s a different person (on those songs) because my voice sounds so different,” Harris said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine last year. “But it is me. And I pretty much loved every song that I did.”
Wrecking crew: Harris’ musical voice didn’t shift nearly as much in the ensuing years as other voices did around her. A look back at her many regional performances from the past 3 ½ decades reveals a lot about the revolving door company she kept.
In Lexington alone, there were Rupp Arena concerts alongside George Strait, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell which led up to her grand 2002 set at the opening night of the T Bone Burnett-produced Down from the Mountain Tour.
There was the 2008 acoustic set at the Singletary Center for the Arts with Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller as well as performances in surrounding cities that placed Harris in the company of Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler and the famed bluegrass ensemble she dubbed the Nash Ramblers.
But stylistic change came in a huge way with Wrecking Ball. The 1995 album took the country sensibilities of her earlier music and stuffed them into a blender. As a result, the designs of Harris’ signing became more sagely, atmospheric and, at times, ghostly.
Supporting her was an electric ambience produced and performed by Daniel Lanois, who helped reinvent the careers of, among others, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and The Neville Brothers. And, as usual, there was a catalogue of 12 songs that spanned generations and genres. Among the composers: Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and co-horts Lanois and Crowell.
Subsequent tours that swapped Lanois for Buddy Miller moved Harris even further from country terrain. As such, the Grammys rewarded Wrecking Ball with a trophy in the vaguely labeled “contemporary folk” category. Call it what you will. Her mid ‘90s music, while still full of country spirit, now possessed a brave electric orchestration that distinguished itself from anything in or out of Nashville.
“I don’t worry about maintaining my past success because my success has always been so modest,” Harris told me in an interview prior to a sold out Kentucky Theatre show in 1996. “But it’s been enough to give me a constituency where the only demand that they make of me is to keep surprising them.”
Bargain hunter: To say that Harris’ most recent album, 2011’s Grammy-nominated Hard Bargain, is something of a full circle project is an over-simplification. With Cage the Elephant/Patty Griffin producer Jay Joyce at the helm, the music could not be more removed from country. Yet, inspirations from her past enlighten the 11 songs Harris penned for the project.
She recalls mentor Parsons in the album-opening The Road, eulogizes longtime friend and frequent collaborator Kate McGarrigle in Darlin’ Kate and fashions a love story after the wartime courtship of her parents in The Ship on his Arm.
Perhaps in keeping with a career that is now over four decades old, there are also songs of mortality. Harris seeks inspiration from the newborn in order to wade through sadness on Goodnight Old World but drapes a civilization where “days are growing shorter” in solitude on Lonely Girl.
This is the mature and beautifully uncategorizable music that brings Harris back to Lexington for her very own night at the Opera House on Sunday.
“You get to a certain age when the life that has preceded you is going to be longer than what is ahead of you,” Harris told Jon Parales of The New York Times shortly before the release of Hard Bargain. “You just accept it. This is where you are at this point in your life. It wasn’t like there was a theme in my head when I sat down to write. The ideas came out of what was happening in my world.”
Emmylou Harris performs at 7 p.m. Jan.29 at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets are $45.50-$75.50. Call: (859) 317-5913 or (800) 745-3000. Or go to www.ticketmaster.com.